3.23.2011

How Exactly One Becomes 375 Pounds (Or More)

I read this article on Rulon Gardner's Biggest Loser experience by Joe Posnanski this morning. And since I have, I've been staring at this Blogger editing window, trying to find the words to explain exaclty how I feel.

It's hard, because it's an extremely complex array of emotions, braided into a single thread. Andrea and I have been watching this season's Biggest Loser, and it's hard not to root for Rulon. He was my hero in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. I watched every single match of his. I cheered when he beat Karelin, and I NEVER cheer at my television for anything, ever.

Okay, well, that's a lie, I cheered in 1994 when the Rangers beat the Canucks in game 7 to win the Stanley Cup. But other than that, yelling at the TV isn't really a habit of mine. It drives me NUTS in bars and restaurants when retarded frat boys and wannabe jocks yell at the tv when their team scores. But I cheered when Rulon won. He was what I wish I could have been when I wrestled. He was the underdog, and he beat an undefeated, overmatched Russian for a gold medal.

And so it is in The Biggest Loser. Rulon, a two time Olympic medalist, lost his battle with his own willpower and shot up to over 400lbs. Again, I see myself in Rulon, but this time, it's not a hero-worship situation. I actually did that. I let myself get incredibly overweight and then had to battle to lose the weight and reclaim my life. And I'm watching this guy who I looked up to face the exact same challenge, and when I root for him, it's not because I wish I was him. It's because I actually was.

And so, in the article I linked, Posnanski (one of my favorite sportswriters) joins Rulon on his mission to compete on the Biggest Loser. And I found the piece very interesting, until I got to this part, which found my jaw on the ground and a tear in my eye:


* * *
February 7
Weight: 242.6 pounds
What does inspiration mean in sport? Can watching Michael Jordan rise and dunk lift us all just a little higher? Can seeing Marshawn Lynch refuse to go down make us slightly more invincible? When Secretariat pulls away does that make us a little bit faster and more brilliant in the stretch?
“The problem,” Rulon Gardner is saying, “is that calories are cheap. Have you thought about that?”
I had not thought of that
“They’re cheap. And they are everywhere. Think about wherever you go. What do you see? Calories. And you don’t need a lot of money to get them. For 10 bucks you could get five or seven or nine thousand calories. Well, I’ve got ten bucks. I might not have anything else. But I’ve got 10 bucks, you know what I mean?”
I knew what he meant.
Rulon Gardner used to look into the mirror, and he says, “I didn’t see what I saw.” He knew he had gained weight after his wrestling days. He knew it, but didn’t KNOW it. His sister, a cardiologist, told him that if he did not shape up he would die soon. His friends told him that when he slept, his snores sounded like gasps, like he was being strangled. He would get winded walking down a hallway.
All the while, he would look in the mirror and he would see … yesterdays. Beautiful yesterdays. He would see himself as an athlete. He would hear the cheers. He would feel invincible. How many times in his life had he cheated death? Even Rulon Gardner can’t say for sure — it depends on how close to death you are talking about. He walked away from a motorcycle crash. He swam away from a plane crash. He survived a night in the Wyoming wild after a snowmobile accident — the pain from the cold was so excruciating that after a while he took solace in it. “As long as I hurt,” he told himself, “I am alive.”
“I didn’t think I could die,” he says. “You know what I mean?”
I knew what he meant.
* * *

That entire section struck a chord within me. I heard it loud as it rang in my ears. The cheapness of the calories. The looking in the mirror. The not knowing what he was seeing when he saw himself so overweight.

That absolutely WAS me. I used to look in the mirror at 375lbs and think to myself "You know, three months in the gym and I could drop the weight. And I bet even at this weight, I could still compete in Judo and out-wrestle anyone. It's not a big deal."

I didn't see the strida of fat in my heart's muscle wall. I didn't see the toll it was taking on my knees. I didn't see the premature death of my wife's husband. All I saw was a former athlete who could "cut weight" anytime he wanted.

And the calories ARE cheap. You can get them anytime you want, from anywhere you want. And for most of us, food is equated to entertainment and escape. Lunch period in school, lunch break at work, dinner with friends, cookouts, pot luck dinners... These things ARE escapes, and it's natural for us to celebrate great times with food. But what that does to some of us is engrain in our brains that food = entertainment. We eat when we're bored.

And the more you eat when you're bored, the less you fill that boredom with activity and healthy living. And when you finally decide to, it's a challenge of the sort that finds you saying "To hell with this shit, it's painful and not fun, and I can spend this time playing Xbox and eating Cheetohs."

And that's what happened to me the past few weeks. I got really, really sick a few weeks ago during travels to and fro, and when I got home, I physically crashed. I spent the whole of the past week and a half in bed or on my couch attempting to get well and recover. And during that time, I found myself catching up on video games I've been wanting to play and eating bad snacks and putting off until tomorrow getting back into the gym and taking fitness seriously again.

I gained 15 lbs in three weeks.

Now, that hasn't put me into firm fat-ass territory, but it did put me back near 300lbs. And while I'm comfortable with the idea of weighing 300lbs, so long as I can run half marathons and Tough Mudders and push the kind of weight I like pushing in the gym, I am NOT comfortable with how I got there.

I slid. And it's just that easy to do it. A week of being sick, or lazy, or overall needing a break turns into three weeks and before you know it, the switch that governs your love of exercise and fitness flips to "off" and you're right back where you were in your most comfortable, lazy and lethargic days.

And you feel like shit the day you walk back into that gym. Even though they can't, you feel like everyone can see the weight you put on, and can tell how hard it is for you to just run a mile on the treadmill, or lift the weights you're used to lifting.

And worse, when you look in the mirror and you see those fat bits showing, you think "eh, just a few weeks back in the gym, I'll cut the weight."

Just. Like. That.

And here's the raw, horrible truth that every single ex-athelete and overweight jock and glory days guy will tell you if they've lived through it: You can't cut the weight in a few weeks. You can't just jump right back into your old life. And the day you try is the worst day of your entire existence, because you feel used up and washed out and exhausted, and mortality finally stares you in the face for the first time and looks right into your eyes with it's hollowed out, deep dark sockets that somehow still seem to glow and says "You're mine."

And so, I cried when I read that article. And I cried when I heard his story on The Biggest Loser, about losing himself and being afraid to try to find it again because he thought it was gone forever, and was afraid to know that that was actually true. Because I know what that's like.

The thing is, I think we all do. Whether or not you played a sport when you were young, or were ever fit, there was a time in your life when you didn't have to actually prepare to walk up a long flight of stairs or rest afterward, and it's so much easier to just not do anything about it than to try and realize you can't go back.

And you can't. But you can go forward. And that's really the point. A life worth living, not a life having worth led. You can't control anything that's already passed. It's gone. But you can certainly work today to make tomorrow a better day. This isn't just about fitness, either. It's true of your financial and emotional health as well.